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Theater maven Isabelle Stevenson dies

Former Theatre Wing president was mainstay at Tonys
/ Source: The Associated Press

Isabelle Stevenson, board chairwoman and former president of the American Theatre Wing which established the Tony Awards, has died after a short illness. She was 90.

Stevenson died Sunday at her Manhattan home, Howard Sherman, the Wing’s executive director, said Monday. She joined the Wing’s board in 1957, becoming its president nine years later and chairwoman in 1998.

The blond, patrician Stevenson was a familiar figure to watchers of the annual Tony telecast each June. Elegantly gowned, she would appear on each show to explain the workings of the Wing to the television audience.

The Tonys were founded to honor the best of Broadway in 1947 by the Wing, a nonprofit theater service organization. They are currently administered by the Wing and the League of American Theatres and Producers.

Stevenson initiated many of the Wing’s programs including several to bring young people to the theater. They included its Introduction to Broadway program, which provides theater tickets at minimal cost to high school students, and its televising of “Working in the Theater Seminars,” which brings together theater professionals, such as actors, directors, playwrights and designers, for roundtable discussions.

Born Isabelle Lebow, Stevenson, the daughter of Russian immigrants, was raised in Philadelphia and New York. Sent by her mother to an acrobatic school to lose weight, she was spotted by a talent scout and made her New York debut in an edition of the lavish musical-theater revue “Earl Carroll’s Vanities,” which ran in the 1920s and ’30s.

As a dancer, she toured the United States and later played the Palladium in London and the Olympia Theatre in Paris, where she was called “the blond Josephine Baker.”

Stevenson studied journalism at New York University and fashion and costume design at the Traphegan School of Design and later became an editor at Greystone Publishing. She received a special Tony in 1999 and was elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 2001.

Her husband, publisher John Stevenson, died in 2002.

Stevenson is survived by two daughters, Susan and Laura, and two grandchildren.